Beroaldo’s work on the Symbola Pythagorae, which appears to have been first printed in 1503, has the following discussion of the word ‘symbol’.
‘Symbolum’ is a word that is polysemous, the grammarians tell us: that is, it has many meanings. First of all, a symbol is a bringing together (‘collatio’), as when many things unite into one (‘quod plures in unum conferunt’ – this definition is taken from Rufinus). Deriving from this meaning, gluttons and belly-gods (‘gulones et ventricolae’) are said to have given their ‘symbol’ for the party, when they all club together their share of money, or fine dishes of food, to provide for a sumptuous feast.In translating this I wondered about a quibble on the first line (‘Symbolum vocabulum est, ut grammatici docent, polysemon’), which can be read either as a remark about the variety of meanings the word ‘symbolum’ may have, or a preliminary definition of the word ‘symbol’, i. e. a sign that has many meanings. I would lean towards the first interpretation, chiefly because symbols are not usually defined by the quality of having many different meanings: indeed often they are imagined to have one true meaning (though not necessarily an obvious one). This is the way Renaissance mystics used the word (e.g. the Egyptian hieroglyphs were ‘symbola’ that concealed a secret knowledge), and also the way Saussure used it – a signifier that has some kind of ‘natural’ relation to what it signifies (as opposed to a sign, which is arbitrary). In On Grammatology Derrida took Saussure to task over this perplexing definition.
Beroaldo goes on to adduce examples of usage from Terence and Plautus, then says:
On the other hand someone who brings nothing to the party or to the meal, and comes to the table without contributing (‘immunis’), and who arrives akletos, which means uninvited, is called ‘asymbolos’, a nice Greek word that is also common in our language…Among the Greeks, ‘asymbolos’ is a very fine word for a parasite, who always comes uninvited to lavish parties without contributing, and without a ‘symbolum’.It’s interesting that Beroaldo dwells so long on this aspect of the word. ‘Symbolon’ had quite a broad range of meanings in Greek (a token, proof of identity, passport, contract, warrant, receipt, secret code, omen, portent, symptom, watchword), and a much narrower one when it came into Latin: Lewis & Short make the distinction (not always made by Renaissance writers) between the neuter ‘symbolum’ (mark, token) and the feminine ‘symbola’ (‘a contribution of money to a feast, a share of a reckoning, one’s scot, shot’). In the Latin of the Church Fathers it took on the primary meaning of ‘confession’, ‘creed’, because it was the name given to the Apostles’ Creed.
Beroaldo refers us to Rufinus, who says that the Apostolic ‘symbolum’ was called by this name because they 'put together', in conference, whatever opinions they each held about the Faith. This is not correct: Isidore of Seville advances the much more sensible explanation that the ‘symbolum’ was the ‘distinctive mark’ by which Christians could be recognized – and the OED agrees.
Beroaldo’s discussion trawls through a few more meanings for the word: most interestingly, the word ‘symbolum’ is sometimes used to mean ‘etymology’…
Aulus Gellius, from whom Beroaldo lifts some of his discussion, suggests that the ‘symbol’ you bring to a party need not be a share of money or food, but may instead be a gift of language.
…when he invited us to his home, so as not to come wholly scot-free (immunes) and without a contribution (asymboli), we brought (coniectabamus – note that ‘conjecture’ and ‘symbol’ both mean ‘a throwing together’) to this small meal not dainty dishes of food, but lively points for discussion (Attic Nights, 7.13)The ‘symbol’, then, points towards that time-honoured link between feasting and language, exemplified by the Greek philosophers’ symposium, or by the Renaissance obsession with mets et mots, the Rabelaisian banquet of words. (Incidentally, Beroaldo’s ‘ventricola’ (belly-worshipper) sounds like an anticipatory plagiarism from Rabelais: it’s as early as Augustine.)
Beroaldo seems to connect the generous polysemousness of symbols (or of the word ‘symbol’) with the generosity of spirit associated with sociable dining. The word ‘symbol’ itself is equivalent to ‘collation’ (a bringing together, a comparison, but also a meal). But on closer inspection, his emphasis is on gluttony more than on generosity: the symbol, as a contribution to a party, is the concern of gannets and belly-gods. It is associated with the idea of being greedy for meaning.
On the other hand, one who is asymbolic is greedy for food and entertainment, but is a parasite, an uninvited guest. He contributes no symbol to offset his consumption. A symbol does not consume more than it contributes, so speak: it gives back a plurality of meaning, but does not get bloated with significance itself. Symbolism puts things all in proportion: it orders the world; asymbolism gets things out of proportion: it is disruptive. In the absence of symbols, all we’re left with is an uninvited guest, a boorish gatecrasher who eats all the peanuts and vomits in the CD player.
I like the link between the notion of being ‘immune’ (in-munus – giving no presents, not participating) and being ‘asymbolic’. Perhaps we could say that engaging in commerce with symbols always leaves meaning open to the risk of infection?
A symbol is something that stands for something else – by convention (convention, like the symbol, designates a ‘coming together’). Symbols are sociable, convivial, the condition for a coming together of minds and bodies.
Convention, collation, conjecture – all words that could stand for ‘symbol’, since they all mean a ‘coming together’, a ‘throwing together’.
Here’s C. S. Peirce, on the sociability of symbols:
Symbols grow. They come into being by development out of other signs, particularly from likenesses or from mixed signs partaking of the nature of likenesses and symbols. We think only in signs. These mental signs are of mixed nature; the symbol-parts of them are called concepts. If a man makes a new symbol, it is by thoughts involving concepts. So it is only out of symbols that a new symbol can grow. Omne symbolum de symboloAnyway I ought to stop at this point, lest I start to resemble that uninvited guest who overstays his welcome. There’s always a risk of contagion in these matters: as Peirce had it, ‘The word symbol has so many meanings that it would be an injury to the language to add a new one.’